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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reinvigorated al Qaeda seen in South Asia

WASHINGTON (Reuters): Al Qaeda is reinvigorating its operations from havens on the Afghan-Pakistani border and poses a growing challenge to U.S. interests in both Iraq and Afghanistan, American intelligence officials said on Wednesday.

Five years after the September 11 attacks and the fall of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the network led by Osama bin Laden has replaced leaders killed or captured by the United States and its allies with new seasoned militants.

"It has shown resilience," CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"The loss of a series of Al Qaeda leaders since 9/11 has been substantial. But it's also been mitigated by what is, frankly, a pretty deep bench of low-ranking personnel capable of stepping up to assume leadership positions," Hayden said.

"These new leaders average over 40 years of age and two decades of involvement in global jihadism."

Hayden was testifying at a Senate hearing on Iraq and Afghanistan along with Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Pentagon's Defence Intelligence Agency.

Sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq, and increasing attacks by al Qaeda-backed Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, worry lawmakers about the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

Also of growing concern is al Qaeda's seeming ability to inspire home-grown cells in Western countries including Britain, where authorities thwarted an alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound trans-Atlantic airliners in August.


Hayden said bin Laden and his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri, believed holed up on the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been able to maintain al Qaeda's cohesion from a viable safe haven.

"That safe haven gives them the physical and even psychological space they need to meet, train, plan, prepare new attacks," said Hayden, a four-star Air Force general.

"Without a fundamental comprehensive change in the permissiveness of the border region, al Qaeda will remain a dangerous threat to security in Afghanistan and to U.S. interests around the globe," Maples told lawmakers.

Despite the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, the two intelligence officials said the group remained a leading actor in that country's sectarian violence, which was likely only to increase.

Hayden blamed al Qaeda for spreading "almost satanic terror" among Shi'ite groups whose militias have greatly escalated the violence in Iraq.

A purported audio recording by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, the current al Qaeda leader in Iraq, last week taunted the Bush administration and threatened to blow up the White House.

Hayden claimed success at dismantling the hierarchy that orchestrated the September 11 attacks, but said Washington only partly understands links between regional militant groups and al Qaeda and is just beginning to dissect al Qaeda's effect on so-called home-grown cells inspired by its rhetoric.

"That's ultimately the war winner: how do you understand the 'inspired by' al Qaeda," he said. "You don't see the movement of people or money or supplies. You see the movement of ideas."
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